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His Dark Materials' showrunner and stars talk the 'madness' of Season 2 and shifting loyalties
When His Dark Materials wrapped its first season, it saw three of its main characters step into another world, while the others were also faced with life-changing decisions. Season 2 of the HBO series expands on all that as it launches into the television adaptation of The Subtle Knife, the second book in author Philip Pullman’s bestselling trilogy.
It’s the first time the book’s successfully made the jump to an on-screen adaptation, with New Line Cinema’s previous attempts to make a film series based on the books, only making it as far as the first book, with 2007’s The Golden Compass.
But The Subtle Knife’s journey to the screen already underway in Season 1, with the character of Will Parry (Amir Wilson) — ostensibly the series’ second lead — being introduced partway through and audiences getting to learn more about him and his home life, as the young teen serving as the primary caretaker for his mother who has mental health issues. Showrunner Jack Thorne said this was done because they were initially concerned that they wouldn’t get to tell this story at all, and also because they wanted to give the proper weight to Will’s experience.
“When you’re doing the first episode of the second season, you need to start off with a running jump, and the way Philip [Pullman] tells Will’s story in The Subtle Knife is really delicate. It would have been very difficult to do that very quickly,” Thorne explains to SYFY WIRE. “Having a hero who’s a teenage carer and who is dealing with his mum’s mental health issues is really, really important as to who he is and what it says about the world, and about where we find our heroes.”
Joining Will on his journey this season is Lyra
Belacqua Silvertongue (Dafne Keen), the almost “feral” protagonist of the first book. She’s already lost her best friend Roger (Lewin Loyd) — the reason for her quest to the North Pole — after her father Lord Asriel (Jame McAvoy) killed him to open up a gateway to other worlds. And she just barely escaped Bolvangar, the prison of kidnapped children that her mother Mrs. Coulter (Ruth Wilson) was running, before talking her way out of being held prisoner by the Panserbjørne (AKA “armored bear”) rival of her new friend Iorek Byrnison. She’d been temporarily rescued by aeronaut Lee Scoresby (Lin-Manuel Miranda), only to then be attacked by Cliff-ghasts, flying creatures, and get separated from everyone.
The first episode of Season 2 will see Lyra finally meet Will, both of them having stepped through gateways into another world. Will has found his “sliver” while fleeing the police, after having accidentally killed someone who’d broken into his home, possibly to attack him and his mother. It’s a big moment for fans of the books, who’ve waited to see an on-screen version of this meeting for a long time, and it’s an especially meaningful one for both characters as they wander the strange abandoned streets of Cittagazze by themselves.
“They can trust each other because of how vulnerable they both feel in this really strange world. They’re basically left with no choice. There’s no one else in this other city,” Keen tells SYFY WIRE of what it is that makes both characters trust one another, even though neither is really prone to trust strangers. “If you’re alone, it’s a bit of a desert island moment. If you find someone, no matter who they are, you trust them. We find out that it was a good decision for them to trust each other. But it’s more a leap of faith. They become friends because of the absence of care they’ve had in their lives.”
Wilson agrees, describing Lyra as someone Will will realize he can rely on.
“They both find it hard to trust at first. They’ve both been let down by the people that were around them when they were growing up,” he says. “When they’re with each other they realize that they can trust one another because they’re both trying to do the right thing and they realize they can help each other.”
Of course, initially, there’s still a bit of a learning curve as both Will and Lyra need to get used to the other, having spent a lot of their lives thus far on their own, with very few (or absolutely no) friends around them.
“They’re both so different and so alike,” Keen says of both characters. “Will’s introverted, more moral, and just the description of ‘nice.’ Lyra’s more extroverted, more spontaneous, more [aware] of the moment, and more emotional. She’s much more feral than him. But that’s what’s so beautiful about it. In so much difference, they’ll find that they’re both actually so lonely and they need someone to fill in the gaps.”
Their journey this season will see them travel back to Will’s world as they try to discover the significance of “Dust,” and also investigate what might have happened to Will’s father, John Parry (Andrew Scott), who was found out to be possibly alive at the end of the previous season. It also gives Lyra a chance to marvel at the difference between her world and ours, which notably has things like bandages and antiseptic cream, while hers has talking animal-shaped representations of the soul known as daemons, something poor Will needs a second to wrap his head around.
“They’re going to find out how vast Dust is and how big and complicated the universe around them is,” Keen explains of a subject that will become even more prominent in the next book, The Amber Spyglass, which Season 3 will be adapting. “Life is not just their tiny house in Oxford with, in Will’s case, his mum, and Lyra’s case, the Scholars [of Jordan College]. Life is much more than Dust. There’s so much more to figure out and you can’t suddenly just decide that you want to do it and suddenly discover it. You have to go through an entire journey and grow up.”
For Will, part of that growing up will be processing what it means to maybe see his father again, which Wilson says is something else that drives him to help Lyra come back into his world like they do in Episode 2, despite the police and the sinister Sir Charles Latrom (Ariyon Bakare) both looking for him.
“All he knows is his father went off to the Arctic when he was one and never came back, and that’s all he knows,” Wilson says of Will’s mindset on the matter. “For someone to find out that their father is alive and that they have the opportunity to meet them is heavy and life-changing.”
Speaking of fathers, Lyra’s own, Asriel Belacqua (James McAvoy), will be missing from this season — but not for want of trying. Given Asriel’s lighter presence in this particular book, the series needed a bridge between the character’s actions on screen at the end of Season 1, and where it is he is when Season 3 takes place. To fix this, Thorne had channeled his inner Pullman and written a standalone episode that would follow Asriel as he himself first made his way through Cittagazze. It was the only episode the series didn’t have a chance to film earlier this year, due to the sudden spread of coronavirus, which saw several projects shut down filming out of safety.
“We are going to go back a bit in time and see him in a city that was full of people as he pops through the first time, and it was going to be a story all about that,” shares Thorne, who felt the pressure of not having Pullman’s texts to guide him. “It was the hardest script I think I’ve ever written.”
One person’s story who did make it into this season is that of aeronaut Lee Scoresby and his trusty daemon Hester (Cristela Alonzo), for whom this season is a big one. He’ll be going on a quest to find the titular knife, a weapon he knows can aid Lyra, who he swore to protect last season. But will the show take the chance to seed in some of the character's backstory from Pullman's standalone novella Once Upon a Time in the North, much like it used the prequel La Belle Sauvage to inform the first scenes of this series, which show how Asriel first brought Lyra to Jordan College, where she would then go on to grow up? Well, not quite.
“The journey we take Lee on is a tiny bit different to that from the Subtle Knife. Not that we’re changing the journey he took. We penned in a few gaps along the way,” Thorne teases. “There’s a scene that I love that I can’t talk about, but it creates a little bit of space for him.”
And finally, there's the case of Lyra's mother, Mrs. Coulter, who ended the last season choosing to walk away from Asriel when they reunited at the North Pole, choosing instead to go searching for Lyra. This season, that search continues, as she also looks into the witches' prophecy regarding her daughter and why it is Lyra is considered so significant, unwilling to let anything stand in her path on her quest for answers, hardly even blinking an eye as she tortures a witch for answers.
But how much of this is motivated by her love for her daughter, and how much of it is out of her desire for power? Thorne says the writers asked themselves that throughout the whole process of writing this season. Book readers will be more than familiar with this question, as Mrs. Coulter's motivations also keep shifting throughout the books as she herself starts to question what she might be feeling.
"All the way through was that question of 'Is she sure of how she feels about Lyra? Is this all about power for her? Where is the line between Lyra and power?'" Thorne says of the Season 2 writers' approach to the character. "That dynamic and confusion inside her is one of the juiciest bits of the whole show. In Series 1, she had certainty. In Series 2, she behaves as if she has certainty. But there is much more at play."
With so much working against them — and happening around them without their knowledge — it's a good thing Will and Lyra have already formed their tentative partnership, one that will see them both changed by the end of the trilogy, with Lyra growing more grounded, and Will loosening up.
"A big sign of being mature is taking from other people and learning, which is the biggest thing this season. The biggest change for them is that they're not alone anymore," Keen explains. "For the first time in their lives, they feel like they're not going to be let down. They're safe and at least they've got each other. Amidst all this madness, Will's got Lyra and Lyra's got Will."
His Dark Materials airs Mondays on HBO at 9 p.m. ET.